Circus Maximus - History and Facts | History Hit

Circus Maximus

Rome, Lazio, Italy

The Circus Maximus was the main sports stadium of Ancient Rome.

Peta Stamper

29 Jun 2021

About Circus Maximus

The Circus Maximus or Circo Massimo in Rome was the main and largest sports stadium in Ancient Rome. Overlooked from the north by the emperors’ palaces on the Palatine, this grand arena was the site of exciting chariot races watched by an exhilarated crowd.

Built and rebuilt several times, at its largest the Circus Maximus held between 150,000 and 250,000 people and today is a public park.

Circus Maximus history

It is unclear as to when the first version of the Circus Maximus was constructed – it was certainly the oldest of Rome’s arenas and served as a model for circuses across the Roman Empire. In Livy’s history of Rome, it was the Etruscan king Lucius Tarquinius Priscus who built raised wooden seating at the Circus and these were made permanent in 329 BC.

Around 50 BC, the Circus Maximus was enlarged under Julius Caesar. The track measured 621 metres long and a canal was cut between the track and seating to protect spectators. A fire in 31 BC did significant damage, repaired under Augustus who also added the Egyptian obelisk brought from Heliopolis at huge expense.

Augustus also added a pulvinar – a large shrine or temple – where he would occasionally watch the games sat beside the gods. The purpose of the Circus Maximus was for ludi, Rome’s public games that celebrated religious festivals.

Because of its size, the Circus Maximus was also the most suitable space for religious processions and the popular large-scale events known as venationes. In the late 3rd century, Emperor Probus put on a show at the circus with beasts being hunted through a specially built forest.

As Christianity spread across the empire, the ludi were seen as less appropriate. The last known beat hunt took place in 523 AD and the last races in 549. After the 6th century the circus was quarried for building materials and the lower levels were gradually flooded and buried.

Circus Maximus today

Today, the Circus Maximus is a shadow of its former magnificence as its original track is now buried 6 metres below the modern surface. Without its Egyptian obelisks and Roman monuments, many see it as just a field. Yet with its shape and vast size still clearly visible, the Circus Maximus is definitely worth visiting and with a little imagination the enormous terrace provides a good indication of the original size and glory of the ancient site.

In the centre of the city, the Circus Maximus is often used for concerts and meetings and has hosted the likes of The Rolling Stones and Genesis. Visitors can also explore the site’s history through the virtual reality ‘Circo Maximo Experience’.

Getting to the Circus Maximus

Nestled in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills, the Circus Maximus is best reached via public transport: the metro B line goes to Circo Maximo, and tram 3 and buses 51, 75, 81, 85, 87 and 118 all stop along the Viale Aventino nearby.